The iPhone is home to some of the best portable video games ever made. Unfortunately, they must be downloaded from one of the worst digital marketplaces. Farming simulations and clones too often dominate the App Store's best selling list. Unusual and inspired games are left to fight for short stints on the coveted front page.
Too many of the best games for iPhone are victims of an out of sight, out of mind economy. After a game's launch, it sinks into the quicksand of mobile gaming junk until it's buried deep beneath thousands of free-to-play cash-ins. Curation has in large part been left to those who remain passionate about the phone as a gaming platform, despite Apple.
What follows is a list of the 21 games that should be installed on every iPhone. As exceptional games continue to be released on the iPhone, we will expand this list. And we will create a similar list dedicated the the iPad and games that make the best use of its larger screen.
Please let us know what treasures you've found in the App Store. Because no matter how hard we watch the ceaseless stream of iPhone releases, great games sometimes slip past us.
Photography: Sean O'Kane
Update: We've added Google Play links for games that are also available for Android. Thank you to 'turbinenreiter' for the help.
Bounden's predecessors, Fingle and Friendstrap, encourage players to use their body to gain advantage against a friend. But roughhousing and expensive smartphones aren't an ideal match, and so a match in either game could easily end in hurt feelings or worse, a broken screen.
And so Bounden feels like the culmination of years of experimentation by its creator. The key difference between those early games and Bounden is cooperation. Bounden is a dance game. Two people hold opposite ends of one smartphone, moving together to guide a cursor over a three-dimensional ball.
Bounden is simpler than it sounds, the sort of game that trains you to be an expert, as long as you give it the time. But more importantly, it's one of the very few mobile games that forces intimacy with another human. Beautiful and affecting, Bounden is a masterpiece.
Desert Golfing begins, like so many video games, as an escape from the banality of life. Maybe you're sitting on the subway or the toilet when you pull back the first swing and release. You finish one hole. You finish nine holes. You finish 18 holes. But the golfing continues to 50 holes, then 100, then 300, and slowly the experience changes.
At one point, a cactus appears. At another point, the game unlocks GameCenter connectivity. Sometimes the courses are extra hilly; sometimes they're extra flat. The game just keeps going.
You begin to ask questions. The game tracks your score, but does the score matter if the game never ends? If the score doesn't matter and the game never ends, why play? And why play video games? Here you are on the 400th hole in a 2D mobile golfing game and the big question hits you: Why do anything?
"It took 23 years for someone to design a Tetris-killer. Simple, elegant, endlessly deep, and shockingly novel. Drop7 is it." That's indie game developer Jason Rohrer praising Drop7. This is the only video game I've played at least once a week every week for over five years. I'm not even that good at Drop7, but it's simple and it can be played with one hand and one move at a time.
In short, the player drops chips labelled 1 through 7 into a 7-by-7 grid. Aligning for chips horizontally or vertically removes those chips to the board and does one unit of damage to unmarked chips, which gradually rise from the bottom of the screen. After a gray chip has been damaged twice, it breaks, revealing a numbered chip. Chips continue to rise and fall and you do what you can to trigger chain reactions and keep the screen clear. It's not easy.
Drop7 is the ideal game to pick at throughout the day. Waiting for the elevator to arrive or the coffee pot to fill? Drop7. Have a couple minutes before the football game starts? Drop7. Can't sleep? Drop7.
Angry Birds popularity isn't a fluke. Its creators — intentionally or not — made a beautiful version of the browser classic Crush the Castle. On its own that would have been enough, in those gold rush days of the app marketplace, to earn its studio a few million dollars. But the small studio did the extra work, releasing free updates for over five years, retaining the app's spot on so many iPhones.
Now Angry Birds is a franchise and a phenomenon. There are plush toys, brand partnerships, and a feature-length film. You can play pseudo-sequels like Angry Birds Seasons, Angry Birds Rio, and Angry Birds Star Wars. And its sequel Angry Birds Space is perhaps a more enjoyable game than the original.
But Angry Birds is the most approachable game in the franchise, and after all those updates, it's humongous. Costing 99 cents, Angry Birds is one the best deals in video games.
Eliss is the sort of game you see people play in sci-fi films. You're not entirely sure what it is or how it works, as it appears all anyone's doing is moving around pulsating balls and dodging vibrating squiggles. Those impossible-to-decipher sci-fi game always look incredible. I remember the first time I saw Eliss. I stared at it like somebody had plucked a game from such a sci-fi film and placed it in front of me, like some sort of supernatural challenge — solve this riddle!
Eliss is actually easy to learn. Using all of your fingers, you split, combine, and move planets, so that they align with targets that appear on the screen. As the game progresses, the playspace fills with planets and you must be careful to avoid traps. It's a test of digit dexterity. Developer Steph Thirion released an update, Eliss Infinity, in early 2014. Infinity has better image resolution and widescreen support, and also includes a sandbox mode, a nice place to pretend you're in the sci-fi movie of your dreams.
Tiny Wings looks like a crude cash-in on "bird" games, a real "genre" of software that flooded the App Store in the wake of Angry Birds' success. But Tiny Wings isn't like Angry Birds or a bird game or really any game on the iPhone.
Frankly, I hate to call it a game. Specific goals are available for the player, and there's an imperative to scoot an adorable, plump bird up and down the game's two-dimensional hills before night falls. But for me, Tiny Wings is best enjoyed as a meditative tool. The wavy motion of the bird, its soft caws, the gentle children's song gently bouncing in the background: every component merges together into this blend of sound and color, putting me into a relaxed trance.
Sometimes I want my iPhone to be an escape from stress. I don't want something frenetic or an event that challenging. I want peace. How appropriate, then, that Tiny Wings ends with the moon rising and the bird gently going to sleep.
For the first five years of iPhone game development, both small indie studios and giant publishers alike tried to create touch controls so precise that a platformer — a Mega Man or a Super Mario Bros. type of game — would feel as comfortable on the iPhone as it would on a traditional gaming console.
In early 2014, one man accomplished the feat on his own. Kero Blaster is the best action and platforming game on the iPhone because it controls so well. And though it's graphics are simple, Kero Blaster is one of the most "console"-like games on the device that wasn't originally designed for another platform. Which is to say its adventure is so smartly designer that you'll actually want to play until the very end. As a frog, you unlock and upgrade weapons, fighting bad guys that look like dustballs. The game doesn't play like an original Nintendo game. It plays like those rose-colored memories of playing original Nintendo games.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
The iOS ports of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft: Auto San Andreas, originally released on consoles roughly a decade ago, are serviceable for those who can suffer sputtering about a three-dimensional world with touchscreen controls. But the best Grand Theft Auto game on the iPhone is Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. It's top-down view simplifies the experience of getting about, and looks better on the portable screen.
On the iOS version, the player can hotwire a car or break a window by twirling or tapping a finger against the screen. Rockstar designed Chinatown Wars for the touch-friendly Nintendo DS, and it shows.
Chinatown Wars also has one of the more interesting and controversial mini-games, a drug-selling simulation. It's the closest mainstream games have come to playing Drugwars on my TI-83 in the back of trig class.
Dodonpachi Resurrection HD
Japanese developer Cave is known for creating exceptionally difficult old-school arcade games that fill their glowing screens with bright and colorful bullets. Their work is like Space Invaders on a cocktail of uppers and anabolic steroids. Completing even the early stages of a Cave shooter requires incredible skill and precision, making them the last games you'd expect to appear on the iPhone.
Dodonpachi Resurrection HD, and the rest of Cave's mobile releases, play as if they were designed for touch controls. In fact, I find them easier than their arcade counterparts, perhaps because I can hold them a couple inches from my face without attracting judgemental looks. They're beautiful — the dense, colorful animation gradually taking over the entirety of the iPhone's glossy, high-definition screen. So yes, this genre, the shoot 'em ups, is notoriously difficult to get into, but the option to play Dodonpachi Resurrection HD, whenever and wherever, makes it an ideal entry point.
Super Stickman Golf
Each year, a gaggle of video-game journalists meet in California a few weeks before E3 to see a few dozen new games. The advance showing allows the press a little extra time to write previews before the industry's most hectic week, and also to begin the vetting process for the annual E3 Awards.
For three years, the most popular game of the week was Super Stickman Golf, played exhaustively in tour buses and hotel lobbies. In single-player, the golfer knocks a ball across a two-dimensional stage, trying to land it in a hole with as few strokes as possible. But in multiplayer, the game becomes a race. Strokes no longer matter. What's important is being the first to finish. This is the anti-Desert Golfing, a gamey game full of power-ups, hats, and level packs. It's an addiction.
Space Invaders Infinity Gene
Space Invaders Infinity Gene ties together the original shoot 'em up, Space Invaders, with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. This isn't a joke. The game earnestly brings the two together and an intelligent way. It does so gradually, so that the big changes to the classic game feel natural and obvious, and that the Darwinian connection doesn't read utterly hamfisted. When a laser cuts up the screen at alternating 90-degree angles, and is followed by some nod to Darwin's text, it feels like these things were part of Space Invaders all along.
The game features many new weapons and abilities, which can be layered onto your spaceship. The art style is monochromatic and gorgeous, like the most jaw-dropping game ever designed for Apple ][. And the music is thumping techno that should be grating and tacky, but somehow it fits. That's the summation of this game, really: a bunch of ideas from across time and space, brought together as if they were always meant to be one holistic thing.
You may have played the Threes knockoff, 2048. Following Threes' release in March 2014, a free clone of the game, 2048, and a handful of clones of that clone, achieved wide popularity. According to Google Analytics, in April 2014 there were 100 searches including the term "2048" for every search of the term "threes." Threes is an example of the limited protection an app has in the mobile marketplace.
Threes is also an example of a marvelously executed puzzle game. Sort of like those sliding puzzles you'd get as a birthday party favor, the player combines panels 1 and 2 to make 3, then two 3s to make 6, then two 6s to make 12, and so on, with a new panel appearing in the game's grid with each swipe.
You shouldn't just download Threes because it's the original game. You should download Threes because it's the superior option. It's cute and charming, and carefully created so that players have documented mind-dissolving high scores, like this, on YouTube.
The most popular mobile games are the most accessible. They're easy to understand and try their best to grab your attention right away. 868-Hack isn't like that. After playing for months, it still feels like I only have a basic understanding of how things work. 868-Hack is a turn-based hacking game, where you proceed through a series of levels trying to steal as much data as you can. In order to be successful, you need to carefully consider every single move. Do you grab that power-up knowing it will spawn new enemies? Or do you make a dash for the exit only grabbing the easiest, safest data possible? One small mistake will lead to death, but in each replay you'll learn a new, subtle nuance to make it easier the next time. Angry Birds hands out high scores like candy. 868-Hack makes you work for them.
Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time
The premise of Plants vs. Zombies is simple: fill up your front yard with cute-but-deadly plants in order to ward off surprisingly-cute-but-brain-loving zombies. Its success, like those adorable plants, has continue to grow and grow. While Plants vs. Zombies didn't quite have the meteoric rise as, say, Angry Birds, its sequel is probably the best free-to-play game ever. 2013's Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time doesn't stray too far from the original formula but adds a lot of gameplay — multiple worlds (each with distinct challenges), several fleshed-out side quests, dozens of plants, and a lot of charm. The difficulty curve does go from 0 to 100 without a moment's notice, but there's plenty to do and a lot of jumping around you can do.
Best part? "Free to play" isn't a misnomer. You can play for hours without having to wait for some arbitrary timer. The in-game coins are rewarded in abundance and the things you can buy for real-world money are completely optional to the game itself.
Ridiculous Fishing is really three different games in one. Part one is the dive: maneuvering your way farther and farther down the lake, avoiding any and all creatures along the way. As soon as you hit a fish — or as soon as you run out of wire — move on to part two: grab every single creature (that isn't a jellyfish) you can on the way up. Once you reach the surface, part three, which real fishermen and fisherwomen should be all too familiar with, begins: throw all the fish in the air and shoot them for a cash reward.
The experience involves a lot of phone wiggling (parts one and two) and screen-tapping (part three). The art style is gorgeous and wholly unique, and the power-ups really enhance the game. Before you know it you'll be tying a hair dryer to a chainsaw lure powered by a huge tank of gasoline, only to blast a large squid from the sky with dual shotguns.
Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor
Thought it was released early in the iPhone's life, there's still nothing like Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. Possibly because it's one of the few video games about being a spider. You spin webs, catch insects, and solve the mystery of a spooky old mansion. You know, typical spider work. The art resembles the panels of a comic book with thick black lines and bold colors, waiting to be covered in spiderwebs.
There's a sense, reading back through this list, that 2009 was a major moment of creativity on the iPhone, and that maybe creativity has dwindled on the platform over the years. That's not so. Developer Tiger Style released its second game, Waking Mars, in 2012. Choosing between that adventure through the Martian landscape and Spider is like choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream. Today it just happens to be Spider. Tomorrow it will probably be Waking Mars.
In your hand you have an iPhone, a strange and magical device that you manipulate using just your fingertips. And on that device is a game, called The Room, about manipulating mysterious puzzle boxes with your fingertips. It's a perfect match. The Room, and its excellent sequel, are puzzle games, but the joy comes as much from the interaction as it does from solving brain teasers. You run your fingers along a wooden box and find a hidden button. Pushing it reveals a secret latch that opens up a new section of the box. It's wonderfully tactile and the dark, gothic ambience make it feel like you're solving a really important mystery. The Room just might be the ideal touchscreen game.
The majority of my gaming happens on trains. For 30 minutes, twice a day, I have nothing to do but play games and it's awesome. Where I play determines what I play. For a commute, a game needs to have enough depth to keep my attention, but be quick enough that I can finish before I arrive in Times Square. Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, and Super Crate Box are phenomenal train games for example. But only one game has actually made me miss my stop: Super Hexagon.
Super Hexagon's App Store description defines it as a minimalist action game, but in reality it's an epileptic mindbomb. Your job is to guide a small triangle through an increasingly difficult maze of spinning hexagonal shapes, which conveniently always have at least one side open. The longest I've gone on the hardest difficulty is 92 seconds. When I first started, I lasted maybe five seconds on the easiest difficulty.
The fact that I last less than 92 seconds even when doing my best makes this an ideal iPhone game for the life of a commuter, even if I wind up playing for an extra hour and end up at the final stop of the F train.
Canabalt has inspired an entire genre of mobile games called "endless runners," action games in which the player runs until an obstacle bring the sprint to a stop, and the entire process begins again. There are 2D endless runners like Alone and Jetpack Joyride, and 3D endless runners like Temple Run and Record Run. But Canabalt was the first really popular endless runner on the iPhone — and debatably the creator of genre.
Canabalt succeeds thanks to simple controls, killer sound design and a simple narrative hook: you're outrunning the apocalypse across the rooftops of a neverending metropolis. The world scrolls quickly and automatically, with the player carefully timing jumps with a single tap of the screen. Five years after the game's release, many mobile action games still try to replicate complex console controls. The pleasure of Canabalt stems from its simplicity: to get through the world all you need is the power to tap.
You know that scene in every Star Trek episode where the captain barks commands to the different departments aboard the Starship Enterprise: turn the masthead, crunch the engine, twist the rotorooter. You know, Star Trek stuff. Spaceteam is a cooperative multiplayer game that recreates that moment. It's a game about controlling chaos.
Each player's iPhone displays a unique set of controls, like a knob, dial, or switch. The screen also shows commands, which may correlate to the controls on another player's phone. To keep the ship together, everyone must learn to communicate in stressful scenarios.
When I say stressful, I mean it. The ships controls break down, requiring players to clean digital gunk off the panels and repair broken boards, all the while keeping the ship from spiraling into a black hole by shaking the phone or flipping it upside down. It's a great game, an excellent ice breaker and a top-notch listening exercise. It should be mandatory for every first day of school.
Every game released by Simogo would fit comfortably on this list and your iPhone. The small independent studio has done as brilliant a job as any developer challenging our expectations of video games. They design for the platform. As an iPhone game, Device 6 takes into account how, where, and why we interact with these devices. The design understands what works well on the phone — reading — and what doesn't — complex controls.
Device 6 is, on the most basic level, a text-based adventure. It unfolds, however, into something more unusual. There's a game beneath the text, littered with puzzles and tugged by an engaging plot to a memorable conclusion. Simogo's games are so unique and surprising that they can't be easily labeled or categorized or synopsised, which may be the best praise I can give then. Once you finish Device 6, be sure to try Year Walk, a spooky, chilling adventure game buried beneath an avalanche of Swedish mythology.